The Tell-Tale Trolley

Stefan Collini

  • Townscape with Figures: Farnham, Portrait of an English Town by Richard Hoggart
    Chatto, 205 pp, £16.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6138 8

Walking along the main street of Farnham one afternoon, Richard Hoggart was accosted by a drunk. He didn’t ask for money or spit ill-focused abuse. ‘I know who you are,’ he slurred, ‘and I’ve got one question for you. Who’s the better writer, you or Raymond Williams?’

Reading this, I found I was disappointed that the level of literary criticism among Farnham’s drunks was so low. Surely an unrelieved diet of British Sherry cannot obscure the fact that Hoggart is a far better writer than Williams. His prose – colloquial, concrete, structured rather than merely adorned by metaphors and similes – constantly suggests a craftsman who appreciates the natural properties of the materials he works with and respects their resistance to his will. His work contains remarkably little writing that is merely dutiful, though in the Sixties fame perhaps gave him too many opportunities to sound off, and some of his lectures and essays of that period lack the wryness and specificity characteristic of his prose. His best writing has nearly always been his most autobiographical, whether in the thinly-disguised form of the first part of The Uses of Literacy (1957) or the three-volume Life and Times published between 1988 and 1992, in which one again and again senses the presence of a strong writerly urge that has only found partial fulfilment in conventional academic genres.

The tone of the Farnham drunk’s question conjures up a background of learned disputation with his park-bench colleagues, which had left this earnest seeker after truth with one nagging uncertainty. Hoggart and Williams are a natural comparison, though Williams and E.P. Thompson, the third side of the familiar triangle, are the more discussed, partly because of their greater prominence as left intellectuals. Since Williams’s death in 1988 there has been a small industry of writing about him, both in Britain and elsewhere; Thompson died earlier this year, and the commemorative conferences and volumes are well under way. But what of Hoggart? Though he has been a lifelong socialist, of that English kind that owes more to Tawney than to Marx, neither his career nor his opinions have qualified him to be exalted as an exemplary intellectual of the Left, at least as that category is usually interpreted. Though constantly invoked as the celebrant of the virtues of ‘community’, he has in fact been something of a loner: he has not always been willing to toe the party-line on test issues of the day (the Falklands War, the miners’ strike); on the other hand, he has been willing to take on practical tasks which the purists tend to regard as inherently corrupting. He has not pretended to be a theorist, but nor has he, like Thompson, set himself up as an anti-theorist. He exercised great institutional influence through his founding of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham in 1963, but his own work has been idiosyncratic and not readily imitable.

Although Hoggart is now the only one of this trio still alive, many readers may have the vague impression that he has nothing left to say. The peak of his fame came in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and his later writing has never achieved the same impact. By publishing an autobiography, the last volume of which appeared when he was in his 75th year, Hoggart himself may have contributed to the sense that the finishing touches could be put to the draft obituaries. But now he has produced another book, and it is both sufficiently like and sufficiently unlike his earlier work to make it easier to see the shape of his still unfinished career (a new book on cultural studies is promised).

Townscape with Figures is a difficult book to classify, and in this as well as much else it is representative of Hoggart’s writing. It is at once a piece of impressionistic empirical sociology, an essay on social change, a meditation on the everydayness of life, a report from the frontier of the Third Age. But although in these ways unclassifiable and intensely personal, it belongs in a particular tradition it is a Condition-of-England book. Among the properties that announce its affinities with this tradition are its winning and distinctively personal voice, its direct appeal to its readers’ experiences and emotions, its deft touch with anecdotes, its unembarrassed moral passion, and that mix of fondness and exasperation that comes from a deep familiarity with the long-sedimented characteristics of English life.

But it is a more informal, chatty book than this rather earnest company may suggest. Surprisingly, one might think, for someone who has been a professor, an Assistant Director-General of Unesco, and a member or chairman of several nationally important committees, Richard Hoggart loves shopping. It is not just the fact that, being retired, he can now potter off at hours when others are chained to their desks; even in The Uses of Literacy there were signs that we were talking serious shopping. Love of a bargain is one thing at work here (he reports with some pride that even now most of the books he buys are second-hand or remaindered, including extra copies of his own works), and his responsiveness to the charms of family life and the rhythms of domesticity is another. But beyond this, shopping is Hoggart’s preferred form of field-work.

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